Stop injuries before they occur.
by Jamie Swedberg
Tent installers have always known there are risks inherent in the job, but recently certain aspects of the job have become more hazardous. This fact has the industry increasing its focus on minimizing risks.
“Five years ago, we would send a guy up on the roof of the tent and never think twice about it,” says Dan Nolan, general manager and president of Tents Unlimited Inc., Marietta, Ga. “No safety harness, no fall protection. They’d just climb up on the roof of the tent, go do what they had to do and climb back down.”
But the increasing popularity of clearspans has made this behavior questionable. The roof is less steep and a lot easier to climb, plus there’s plenty of structural support. All these factors make climbing seem innocuous. But if someone slips, Nolan notes, they’ve got a very long way to fall.
Underneath, it’s just as perilous.
“When you install clearspan tents, you’ve got purlins that are hanging,” Nolan says. “You’re working above your head with metal and steel and aluminum, and if something falls and it slings down and hits your hard hat, well, you’re fine. If it hits your bare head, we’re taking a ride to the hospital, nine times out of ten.”
That doesn’t mean installers should slack off on safety when they’re installing pole tents, though. And the best way to make sure safety procedures are followed when they’re really needed is to make sure they’re followed all the time. Crew leaders can create a culture of safety by modeling this behavior. The hard hat should go on the moment they step out of the truck.
Ear protection isn’t the first thing you think of on a tent site, but most experienced installers will tell you they are losing their hearing. Generators and stake pounders are the culprits; earplugs can protect against further damage.
And speaking of stakes, proper staking can help prevent failures.
“A common shortcoming is people cutting corners by not putting enough stakes in the ground, putting them too close or not putting them far enough in the ground,” says Bob Mutton, owner of Bob Mutton Party Rental, Fort Wayne, Ind. “Or they’ve got a ground situation that’s soft, but they don’t add more stakes. For instance, at a Parade of Homes, where they’re going to have a big tent for vendors, all the ground’s been torn up and you may need more stakes to secure the tent.”
Headless stakes can develop razor-sharp edges after being pounded by a sledgehammer or stake driver. Mutton says it’s common for crew members to cut themselves on stakes such as these, so he recommends replacing them or topping them with stake caps.
And never forget that back injuries can be prevented by teaching installers how to lift properly.
“We teach tent handling—how you move [a tent] in and out of the truck,” Mutton says. “How to flip and roll it, versus picking it up and carrying it. And never drag anything, because when you drag you’re pulling on your back. If you handle stuff right, you’re not abusing your product and you’re also not abusing your body.”
Several years ago, a series of incidents in the United States and Canada called attention to installation safety issues. Some of the incidents, such as one in which an employee fell off a flatbed truck while the crew was moving a tent across a field, had more to do with the sites than with the tents themselves. Yet the accident could have been prevented by basic safety training.
“One of the most important safety issues has to do with awareness of your surroundings,” says Jan Schieffer, manager of the Tent Rental Division of IFAI, Roseville, Minn. “Electricity can jump, so if you’re putting up your tent underneath an overhead wire you [need to have quite a bit of] space in between, or it could arc. Many times, crews will assemble a tent, then they’ll have to move it a few feet, so they lift it up. When they lift it up, they can touch the wires. It’s not easy to judge [the safe distance].”
Buried cables can also cause electrocutions, so Schieffer says it’s crucial to do a site survey and call utility companies to have the locations marked before anyone does any digging.
Vehicles are dangerous whether installers are inside or outside the cab. Nolan requires his installers to wear reflective vests so they’re more visible to operators of cars, trucks and forklifts on the site. He also won’t let employees drive company trucks if they’ve been convicted of reckless driving, DUI or drug-related charges. Even a speeding ticket goes in the personnel file.
One major safety challenge of tent installation is that conditions are not always ideal, and installers aren’t always at their freshest. Without extra attention to safety procedures, fatigue or time pressure could cause a deadly mistake.
Back to school
The best defense against unsafe situations is training, training, training. Unfortunately, most tent rental firms employ a lot of seasonal employees—sometimes two waves of them per season, depending on college schedules—and it’s tough to keep everyone up to speed. There are always greenhorns on the jobsite
“That’s where the crew chiefs come in,” says Ken Keberle, technical resources director at Karl’s Event Rental, Oak Creek, Wis. “They’re the most important part of any tent company. Those are the guys who set the tone for safety on their jobsites.”
Schieffer recommends that in addition to conducting all-crew training at the beginning of the season, companies send crew chiefs and lead installers to offsite safety training programs so they can gain expertise, then bring safe workplace culture back to everyone else on the crew. Ideally, it should be a sort of “buddy system.”
“They can come and gather the information, then bring it back,” Schieffer explains. “Many tent rental companies, when they get a new employee, will pair them with a seasoned employee. The way you learn a craft is by watching someone and doing what they do.”
Mutton says the American Rental Association offers a variety of videos on safe staking and installation, and associations such as IFAI host regional safety workshops—such as its Tent Rental Division’s ongoing program, “Training for the Tent Installer”—that can benefit employees.
Nolan says the program workshops are an opportunity for tent rental companies to give their best employees more knowledge and confidence to do their jobs.
“That’s going to translate into a happier employee, because they understand more,” he says. “And it’s going to translate to your bottom line, because accidents are going to happen less. Mistakes are going to happen less. You’re going to end up with a happier client, and probably a better retention rate too.”